BACKGROUND AND STATUS: The BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, leaving 11 workers missing and presumed dead and 17 others injured. The rig collapsed and sank. Two days later, on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, oil was discovered to be leaking from an underground pipe in three places at 5,000 feet below the surface. The rate of the oil flowing from the pipe is estimated at 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) a day, but without a proper meter installed, flow estimates have a large margin of error. A BP executive told members of Congress on Tuesday that the leak could potentially balloon to 60,000 barrels (2,520,000 gallons) a day, the New York Times reported. The spill could affect fishing, tourism and many other industries in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and possibly other states.
It is still unclear what caused the explosion, but reports suggest that the spill could have possibly been prevented or limited had BP installed a $500,000 cut-off switch on the well. Such switches, which are mandatory in Brazil and Norway, can be triggered remotely, even if the $560 million Deepwater Horizon rig failed. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the U.S. Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) considered requiring the devices during the George W. Bush administration. Oil companies expressed doubts as to the cost effectiveness of the switches and MMS ultimately sided with them. Another fail-safe, called a “dead-man” switch, was installed on the rig, but it failed to trigger for an unknown reason.
Several federal agencies–including the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)–have teamed with state agencies and BP and Transocean (which leased the rig to BP) to respond to the spill. The agencies and companies responding to the spill are collectively referred to as the unified command. The response effort now encompasses 7,500 people, 200 vessels, and dozens of aircraft.
THE SPILL ON THE SPILL: Estimates on the spill’s size place it at between 2,500 and 9,100 square miles. NOAA released a forecast of the position of the slick on Wednesday, projecting that oil could wash up on the shore of areas on the southernmost tip of Louisiana, on the Mississippi delta, by Friday, May 7. East Bay and areas on the Texas side of Louisiana are threatened, but the major impact is projected to be at areas like Eloi Bay, Garden Island Bay and the Chandeleur Islands (all on the Mississippi side of Louisiana). Sadly, the Chandeleur Islands are the home of Breton National Wildlife Refuge, where dead wildlife–including sea turtles–has already been found.
Early projections put oil on Alabama’s coastline by Thursday, May 6, but landfall has been delayed due to calm seas and winds in recent days. The “uncertainty area” (where NOAA projects oil could possibly be found by May 7) on NOAA’s forecast map, which you can see at www.noaa.gov, extends to about 30 miles off Alabama’s barrier islands.
On Tuesday, NOAA restricted both recreational and commercial fishing in an area that is or is projected to be affected by the oil spill from Louisiana’s Mississippi River delta to Pensacola Bay in Florida. The economic implications of a fishing ban could be catastrophic. In his Wednesday New York Times column, Thomas Friedman wrote that “Some 40 percent of America’s fish catch comes out of the gulf.” On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported this tidbit: “The annual commercial seafood harvest in the gulf is $661 million, recreational fishing contributes $757 million and nearly 8,000 jobs, and tourism related to wildlife adds $517 million, according to the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.”
STOPPING THE FLOW: BP is considering every option available to stop the flow of oil at its source. Well, almost every option. A report in the Russian newspaper Komsomoloskaya Pravda (flagged by Julia Ioffe at TrueSlant.com) suggested setting off a nuclear bomb underwater to compress the seabed and stop the leak. Apparently, the Soviet Union used this method to stop oil and natural gas leaks five times between 1966 and 1979, with only one failed attempt.
BP is thinking a bit more conventionally. On Tuesday, a remotely operated submersible robot successfully cut off the top of the riser (which once connected the well to the rig) and installed a shut-off valve, stopping one of the three leaks. And, speaking of the Soviet Union, BP is also constructing three 40-foot tall “containment domes” (not unlike the containment structure surrounding the blown reactor at Chernobyl) which will be lowered over the leaks. The first such dome was scheduled to be put on a ship on Wednesday. On Thursday, it is expected begin its 48-hour descent towards the subsurface leaks.
The long-term solution is to drill a relief well into the pipe at 18,000 feet. The pipe would then be pumped full of concrete to stop the well’s flow. But this delicate operation could take up to three months. Reactionary, a blogger at Flashpoint blog, described this process (hitting the seven-inch pipe that deep) as “like hitting a bullet with a bullet.” With that in mind, BP is using two ships to “race” to hit the well.
CONTAINING THE SPILL: The unified command’s primary response to containing the spill has been to deploy booms (a barrier device that floats on the surface and corrals the spill or protects threatened areas) around the spill and around threatened land, like Alabama’s Bayou La Batre, Dauphin Island and Orange Beach. The Coast Guard, along with those who have volunteered themselves and their vessels, has deployed 367,000 feet of boom to mixed results. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said Sunday that 80 percent of the booms deployed on Alabama’s coast over the weekend broke down due to rough weather, the Associated Press reported. Rain broke up some of the oil slick, but winds and rough seas caused segments of the barriers to wash up at Perdido Key, according to a story in Monday’s Mobile Press-Register. That story summarized how the booms work: “The barriers are filled with a chemical compound that is supposed to solidify as oil seeps into the porous fabric. The rubbery solid can then be removed and the barrier refilled.”
Dispersants are also being used to mitigate the effects of the spill. A dispersant is a chemical similar to household detergents that breaks up large globules of crude oil into smaller, less harmful bits that biodegrade relatively quickly. Planes spray the dispersant on oil at the surface (160,000 gallons so far), but BP is also experimenting with spraying it nearly a mile underwater, at the site of the leaks. A story on Upstreamonline.com said that tests with that method went well, and BP is considering drilling into the leaking pipe and injecting dispersant directly into the flow of oil, before the chemical can be diluted with water. At the surface, ships skim off oil-water mixes for later disposal. More than a million gallons of oil-water mix had been collected as of Tuesday.
There have been attempts to set the oil on fire at the surface, but this is not as simple as it seems. There are environmental concerns (usually long-term) with burning thousands of gallons of crude oil, but those are measured against immediate threats to coastlines, wildlife or fisheries. Once the decision has been made to go forward with a burn, workers must use booms to gather enough oil in one place to allow for the oil to burn hot enough to set adjacent oil on fire. This has proven difficult.
COVERING THE COST: After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which requires that the responsible company pay the oil spill clean-up costs. In a post summarizing the cost concerns of the Deepwater Horizon spill at TalkingPointsMemo.com, blogger Justin Elliot noted that BP has promised to pay for “all necessary and appropriate clean-up costs.” The Coast Guard is tracking clean-up costs incurred by the agencies in the unified command and plans to bill BP, Elliot reported. The Valdez clean-up cost $3.5 billion.
BP has been criticized for attempting to shift blame for the spill onto Transocean and Halliburton (a drilling operations contractor on the Deepwater Horizon).
Damages to property, tourism, fishing, people and others are another issue. Unless negligence or misconduct is found to have caused the spill, BP’s liability is capped at $75 million under the Oil Pollution Act. However, Elliot notes that BP has offered to cover “legitimate and objectively verifiable” damage claims, and Congress is considering raising the liability cap to $10 billion.
LOOKING FORWARD: Stay tuned to the Weekly. Next week, we’ll update you on new developments, fill you in on the ridiculous political fallout from the spill (including the perilous future of offshore drilling) and discuss the several preemptive lawsuits filed against BP.
Send your comments to Madison@bhamweekly.com.